Every month, we hear from folks in higher ed who are interested in Switchboard not because of what our company does, but because of what we have done—move from higher education to the private sector. Professionals in constituent-facing offices like career services, student affairs, alumni relations, and advancement want to know how they can transition away from higher ed, too.
This quiet, looming exodus is as frightening to watch as it is frustrating. It's frightening because institutions are losing the talent they need to succeed and survive in the changing higher ed landscape. It's frustrating because we know it is preventable.
When people leave their jobs, they each have their own reasons for moving on. But everyone we've spoken to shares one reason in common: a lack of professional development resources at their institution.
It's a huge problem, but we'll try to keep it brief. Here are four reasons why a dearth of professional development funding and opportunities is hollowing out constituent-facing offices.
People don’t get to move forward
A lack of professional development opportunities is enough for about two-thirds of people to consider looking for work elsewhere, according to Penna. On top of that, many institutions shy away from hiring from within, leaving little opportunity for people to earn promotions. (Less than half of senior administrators are hired internally into their positions.) When people want to advance their careers, often their only choice is to jump to another institution. These factors contribute to a sense of stagnation that causes many to leave higher ed altogether—and stifles their passion for their work while they remain inside it.
The problem is particularly acute for younger staff. While the notion that millennials hop jobs more than their older counterparts is not actually supported by the data, young professionals with aspirations are still ill served by the stunted structure of the career ladder in higher education.
Professional development gives us avenues for advancement without even necessarily having to directly offer avenues for promotion. The more we give people the chance to better themselves and show that we value them enough to invest in their growth, the happier they'll be. Internal hiring also helps us limit the disruption and loss of institutional memory that occurs when we hire from beyond our institution.
We are blessed in higher education to serve institutions with a higher purpose. When we don't give ourselves the opportunity to better serve that purpose, we squander it.
Expectations are rising, and we don’t have the answers
As students and the broader public ask more of colleges and universities, institutions are in turn asking more of their staff. We give ourselves more goals to meet, numbers to make, and things to measure. We're trying to instigate what amounts to a revolution in higher education.
It is unfair to expect ourselves to come up with everything on our own. The poet Wendell Berry wrote, "It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are." But when we allocate only $1,000 toward professional development for an office of half a dozen people—unfortunately, not an uncommon budget scenario—that's what we try to do.
We have a tendency to think of the solutions to our challenges as abstract ideas, strategies, and plans that exist free-floating, waiting for us to pluck them out of the aether. That's one reason we love conferences so much and count the cost of attending them as money spent on professional development: Going to conferences is like shopping wholesale for the right ideas.
In reality, solutions are crafted, not found, and the process of creating a solution, like any craft, requires experience, training, and insight. It requires professional development.
Our leadership is retiring in droves, and we don’t have a succession plan
Baby Boomers are retiring, and with them we're losing decades of experience and institutional memory. In the United States alone, 10,000 baby boomers retire every day. Because this is happening across all of higher education, competition for hiring the right people for high level positions is increasing.
We barely have succession plans now. We all know the chaos that ensues when one of our senior leaders leaves. These vacuums of authority are only going to get worse as institutions struggle to hire replacements.
We can't hire ourselves out of this demographic crunch. There isn't a big enough supply of experienced professionals. Instead, we have to develop that talent ourselves.
Higher ed is facing demographic challenges that will shape the sector for decades to come
There are 2.4 million fewer college students than there were five years ago. The college student population is projected by some researchers to decline even further, by as much as 15%, starting in 2026, when the echo of the Great Recession catches up with higher ed demographics 18 years later. On top of that, we'll have a higher proportion of first-gen students and students of color than ever. It won't be much longer before those shifts begin to change what college and university staff look like.
Our pipeline is already about to be challenged as Baby Boomers retire en masse. On top of that, college and senior university administrators are more white and more male than the general population, the students they serve, and the staff they oversee. Changing demographics will make these disparities as unsustainable as they are unjust.
Addressing these challenges will require new and more inclusive staffing pipelines. That means both creating professional development opportunities for new and rising professionals and finding professional development opportunities where we can learn how to do so.
Interested in paths out of this mess? Learn more about the partnerships we offer.